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At the Erie County Fair, 4-H kids help collect 50,000 bottles and cans

Recycling is anything but a tedious task for John Pirrung and Lauren Allan.

Pirrung and Allan, both 15, have created a game out of organizing dozens of bags filled with recycled waste from the Erie County Fair and sorting them into collections of cans, bottles and garbage.

“It’s basically like a carnival game,” Pirrung said. “Tossing the bottles and cans in the correct bin.”

There's a reason they've turned it into a pastime. The two teens are 4-H volunteers for its fair recycling program, which collects about 50,000 cans and bottles during the 12-day fair. That brings in about $2,500.

The 4-H recycling program got off the ground in 2012.

Adults and kids from the 4-H youth development program volunteer for daily shifts. In the morning, the volunteers go around the entire fairgrounds emptying 52 totes and 13 barrels of bottles and cans. The bags of recyclables are brought back to a sorting area, where an evening shift of volunteers sorts them, said Debbie Beats, a 4-H adult volunteer.

“They start at 7 a.m. and go around with a UTV,” she said. “It takes around two to three hours every day.”

Only the adult volunteers collect and sort bottles from areas that sell alcoholic beverages.

Each kid has a different task – one organizes empty cans with deposits, one sorts out bottles with deposits and one collects recyclables with no deposit in separate bags. Another kid helps dump any liquid remaining in the bottles and cans.

Allan, who was in charge of sorting bottle deposits, said she returned to volunteer for a second year because of the learning experience.

“We get to work with people from different ages and learn to communicate with them,” she said. “We also gain respect for those who have recycling jobs, so I make sure to empty my bottles and recycle them in the right bins.”

The organized cans and bottles are then bagged and stored in a trailer truck that is taken to Consumer Beverages, where the deposits are redeemed. The company also supplies the program with materials, including plastic bags to collect the recyclables and a trailer truck for storage.

Prior to the recycling program, waste from the fair went into the trash, said Barry Zakowicz, chairman of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County.

"People began to realize that bottles have deposits and that’s good money that is being thrown away," Zakowicz said.

Zakowicz said the program plans to use the money from this year's earnings to create a scholarship for the 4-H Livestock program, a project that teaches children how to raise and manage a livestock animal.

“It takes money to buy a cow or a pig,” he said. “But providing a scholarship gives children the opportunity to raise an animal and sell that animal at the market auction and restart that process again.”

Zakowicz said the program was only made possible because of the volunteers.

"The credit really goes to the kids and all the volunteers," he said.

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